Catherine, Empress of All the Russias
Drawing on primary sources such as love letters, diplomatic dispatches, diaries, and Catherine’s personal memoirs, Vincent Cronin presents an intimate, detailed biography of the only woman ruler in history designated as “Great.” His compassionate and refined tone to her story line reflects Cronin’s respect for the woman and her achievements. Catherine’s private life, which was filled with a series of love affairs sensationalized by French revolutionary writers and other critics, is described in the context of a long, distinguished reign and from this perspective, Catherine emerges as an enlightened despot.
Cronin commits himself on key historical problems eclipsing Catherine’s successes: the disputed paternity of her children, the number of her children, the intensity of her interests in sex, her rumored secret second marriage, and her role in murdering her consort, Tsar Peter III. Catherine’s reputation repeatedly has been vilified by biographers; Cronin reevaluates evidence which exonerates her from committing regicide and proves that she was not a nymphomaniac, but rather an overworked ruler who regarded sex as a non-exploitative and needed physical outlet.
Catherine is introduced as Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a minor German princess with no claims to greatness. Her hard-won battle with scoliosis, her strict early education, and her warm relationship with her French governess, Babet, are intimately detailed and serve to establish the character traits of endurance, resilience and loyalty, which Sophie later manifested as Grand Duchess and Empress of Russia. From the beginning, the reader perceives Catherine as a real person rather than a remote, though important historical figure.
Her rise from a General’s daughter to Empress was a feat attributable more to her determination than to outside political pressure. To bind an alliance, Prussian Kaiser Frederick II helped arrange the marriage between Sophie and Grand Duke Peter Ulrich, the heir to the Russian throne. However, it was Sophie who brought it about by undergoing a process of russianization that necessitated her name change to Catherine and her conversion to the Orthodox religion. That same determination enabled her to withstand eighteen years of persecution by Peter and the Empress Elizabeth and to connive ways to placate their anger. She survived Tsar Peter’s growing unpopularity by publicly defying his policies, such as his alienation of Austria and war with Denmark, and by staging a coup that deposed him and empowered her. Her victories over such dynamic and dramatic vicissitudes made her mistress of her own destiny in a country rife with assassination. She looms as a person who could act well on her own despite setbacks.
As Cronin shows, Catherine’s reign of thirty-three years was often challenged by pretenders claiming to be Peter III or a close relative. For example, Emilyan Pugachev, one of the most threatening, led successful peasant uprisings in South Russia in 1773-1774. Astute action by the Empress and powerful military figures saved her throne, but the public imagination was stirred by these potential usurpers, who, unlike the foreign-born Catherine, were Russian.
In addition, her rulership was not accepted without criticism by some major supporters, such as her son, Grand Duke Paul, who was haunted by the image of his slain father and his mother’s possible part in the murder. Catherine’s silence in the matter created a rift between them that made Paul constantly question her right to the throne, though he never acted against her. Cronin convincingly argues that the Empress was silent in order to conceal her adultery with her first lover and Paul’s real father, Serge Saltuikov, and also to conceal her plot to depose Peter. She also feared that any revelation about Paul’s paternity would weaken her authority since she claimed to be preparing the throne for Peter the Great’s descendant. Historians disagree on whether Peter III fathered...
(The entire section is 1,571 words.)